Good German, The (2007): Misfire, Starring George Clooney, Cate Blanchett, Tobey Maguire

Soderbergh’s The Good German is a major disappointment, a pastiche of a movie that tries to bring back the style, glory and pleasure of old studio gems, such as John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon, Michael Curtiz’s Casablanca, Billy Wilder’s Foreign Affair, and Carol Reed’s The Third Man, among others.

Despite Soderbergh’s honorable intent and willingness to experiment, end result is an all-artifice movie, made of old parts that don’t fit.

Star cast of George Clooney and Cate Blanchett doesnt help much, because the acting is not particularly good.   Moreover, there’s no chemistry between the two leads as lovers.  The triangle’s third wheel, Tobey Maguire, is simply miscast; in his love scenes with Blanchett, he comes across as an adolescent, more of a brother than lover.

A gifted, versatile director, Soderbergh has been trying to model his career after that of an old studio director, hopping from genre to genre, making small and big movies, working fast and efficiently, often directing two movies a year (when most Hollywood directors are lucky if they can make one movie every other year).

From the very beginning of his career, Soderbergh, like other directors (prominent among them Scorsese and Michael Mann) has been intrigued by the thematics and stylistics of film noir. However, his two previous efforts in the genre, Kafka and Underneath, are arguably his weakest pictures to date.

Paying home to German Expressionism “Kafka” (1991), which is set in Vienna, was a sophomore jinx, a mishmash of a film that lacked distinct identity despite an impressive cast that included Alec Guinness and Jeremy Irons. As a follow-up to his stunning debut, “sex, lies and videotape,” the movie was considered a flop. “The Underneath,” in 1995, was also disappointing, particularly compared to the source materialthe movie was a loose remake of the classic noir, “Criss Cross.”

And now comes Soderbergh’s third failed effort at film noir, “The Good German,” based on the novel by Joseph Kanon, adapted to the screen by writer Paul Attanasio. As noted, the movie boasts an all-star cast, headed by Clooney (a Soderbergh regular and business partner), Blanchette, and Maguire. A blend of mystery, romance, and political thriller, but not satisfying on any of these levels, “The Good German” is set in Berlin in 1945, at the end of the war, when the devastated city is divided into zones, the American, the Russian.

The story unfolds as a romantic triangle between Jake Geismer (Clooney), an American war correspondent who has just arrived in Berlin to cover the upcoming Potsdam Peace Conference, where Allied leaders (Truman, Churchill) will meet to determine the fate of the defeated Germany and the newly liberated Europe.

Corporal Tully (Maguire), Jake’s driver, exudes small town American charm and naivet. He projects the impression of a country bumpkin, an eager, guileless, good-natured kid from the Midwest. But this being noir, Tully soon reveals shades of gray, dual personality, and morally dubious dealings.

Blanchette plays Lena Brandt, the femme fatale, the woman in between; both Jake and Tully fall hard for her. Lena has been irrevocably changed by the war and the hardships of life in the ruined city. But who is Lena A good German trying to escape from Berlin and her past to the West A duplicitous black widow (a prevalent type of female role in noir) An adulterous wife, having affairs with Tully and Jake

This trip is not Jake’s first to Berlin. He had once managed a news bureau there and fell in love with Lena, then one of his stringers. But that seems a lifetime ago as he takes in the staggering devastation on the jeep ride from the airport to his hotel in the American zone. Again, this being noir, we know its only a matter of time before Jake re-encounters former stringer Lena and falls for her hard–again.

In the best tradition of noir, “The Good German” revolves around a murder mystery. Tullys body is found in the river in the Russian zone, with a lot of money in his pocket and a bullet in his back. At first, both the American and the Russian authorities look the other way.

As expected, Jake is drawn into the murder investigation, and into the bigger mystery of why everyone just wants it to go away. Is it corruption Cover-up related to the black market. Jake discoversat a pricethat in the New Berlin everyone has a secret and a chip on his, everyone is wheeling and dealing, everyone has his own agenda (sometimes two).

Its the beginning of the Cold War and the Russians and Americans are competing to find Lena’s husband Emil (Christian Oliver), whose involvement in a German rocket program conducted at a concentration camp makes him crucial to each country’s arms powers. Soon revelations are also made about Emil; for a while, we are not sure whether he is alive and hiding, or dead and buried.

If sheer survival is the only rule of the game, there are no limits or morals to the means used to preserve one’s life. On a superficial level, the movie explores the role of money, greed, and power in post-WWII Berlin, trying to involve us in a moral dilemma by posing the question of who is in a position to make judgments.

Recreating the last scene of Casablanca, the films ending, which cannot be revealed here, is a mistake, since by that time a cynical mood has taken over the entire saga. On the other hand, the homage to Carol Reed’s masterpiece, “The Third Man,” which is set in Vienna right after the war and revolves around black market and profiteering, is more successful.

A throwback to Casablanca, as if it were a Warner picture, The Good German boasts faithfully a black-and-white cinematography framed at the standard 1.66:1 aspect ratio, using fixed focal-length lenses and saturated lighting. The film has the expected shadowy look and gloomy mood of a 1940s noirish melodrama. Indeed, like studio films of the era, the action has been staged on back lots or L.A. locations.

Thomas Newman’s sweeping, overwhelming score aims for the melodic grandeur of studio composers like Max Steiner, David Raksin, Victor Young, and his own father, Alfred Newman.

Nonetheless, even technically, The Good German is not entirely successful, because it calls too much attention to its style. Cold and calculated, the style is not in service of the narrative. The whole film feels like an artistic exercise to prove a point. But what is the point The artifice is so self-conscious and referential that it becomes stilted.

Jake is film noir’s prototypical fall guy, a disillusioned romantic and obsessive self-righteous man, in the mold of Bogart or Mitchum. Clooney, however, seems out-of-place; he may be too modern an actor to be in a period piece of this kind. Miscast, Maguire gives an uncompelling performance that despite the foul-mouthed verbiage and amoral tone, lacks authentic.

This is the first mannered, actorish performance of the gifted Blanchett. her German accent is so heavy that it feels like a tribute to Marlene Dietrich.

Ultimately, what defeats “The Good German” is that its narrtaive is just convoluted but not particularly relevant to our times. The more serious discussions of the Holocaust, the Allied Forces profiteering from the Nazi’s downfall, and the nature of moral responsibility dont gel with the murder mystery or illicit affair. To sume up, as a pseudo-political tale, the film lacks contemporary meaning, and the espionage-tinged romance is so detached that it lacks warmth and prevents emotional involvement.